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February 1, 2005
Vol. 62
No. 5

Seventh Annual Report on Commercialism in Schools / Ivy-Covered Malls and Creeping Commercialism

A watchdog group shows that commercialism in schools surged in 2003–2004.

Seventh Annual Report on Commercialism in Schools / Ivy-Covered Malls and Creeping Commercialism- thumbnail
In the heartland city of Indianapolis, Indiana, students are enrolled in an unlikely school: the Lafayette Square Mall. There, amid the bustle of shoppers and the beeping of cash registers, students attend classes, work at part-time jobs for school credit, walk the mall to fulfill a mandatory gym requirement, and get their meals at the food court. Since 1998, the United States' largest mall developer—the Simon Property Group—has partnered with local public school systems to open 19 alternative public schools in malls (or “Education Resource Centers”) in 11 states through its nonprofit Simon Youth Foundation. Lafayette Square's school, with a 200-student capacity, is the newest and largest (Berdik, 2004).
Supporters of the Simon school-in-a-mall concept offer a benign, even laudatory, interpretation of the group's efforts. At Education Resource Centers, they claim, students who were at risk of dropping out eventually become high school graduates. Mall schools maintain a 1:15 teacher-student ratio and require students to sign behavioral contracts and learn job skills. But as psychologist Susan Linn points out,If a school embraces a commercial enterprise or commercial values, the school is sanctioning them. . . . A mall is full of businesses that want to sell things, and sell things to kids. (Berdik, 2004)
As Simon Property Group moves the schoolhouse into the shopping center, marketers continue to burrow into public education. The trend is making public schools less like education institutions and more like the shopping malls where students spend their free time.

Vanguard of the Future

Rather than an anomaly, schools in malls may be a vanguard of the future. The reasons that schools are willing to partner with businesses and barter for access to their students have not varied much over the years. Funding shortages continue to strain school systems. In some school districts, residents seek private funds systematically, establishing foundations to raise and disburse money to supplement school tax revenue. Corporate sponsors often contribute to schools, receiving varying amounts of recognition (Nussbaum, 2004). Because school foundations are more likely to exist in wealthy communities, corporate contributions to schools may increase funding disparities between affluent and poor school communities.
For their part, corporations are working their way into schools because they covet the youth market. “It's about locking in brand loyalty when kids are young,” explains Robert Kozinets of the Kellogg School of Business at Northwestern University (Rubin, 2004). Although businesses do seek community good will, they expect to cash in on it. Jane Crawford, of the Pennsylvania-based chemical company Atofina, said:I think there was a time when we would agree to sponsorships and not look for an ROI [return on investment]. But these days you have to get it. You just have to. (Shortman, 2004)
Schoolhouse commercialism can be neither dismissed as innocuous nor lauded as beneficial. For example, widely marketed soft drinks and junk foods in schools arguably fuel the rise in obesity in children, with associated health risks (Molnar, 2003). A 2004 U.S. Government Accountability Office report noted that soft drinks, ice cream, and high-fat snacks were the items students purchased most often from vending machines.
The Commercialism in Education Research Unit (CERU) of the Education Policy Studies Laboratory at Arizona State University has monitored media references to schoolhouse commercialism since 1990. (The entire report is available atwww.schoolcommercialism.org.) For the July 1, 2003–June 30, 2004 period, media references rose in five of the eight categories that CERU monitors: sponsorship of programs and activities, exclusive agreements, appropriation of space, electronic marketing, and fund-raising. Media references held steady in the category of incentive programs and dropped in the categories of sponsored educational materials and privatization. An overview of trends in these eight categories follows.

Sponsorship of Programs and Activities

Sponsorship of programs and activities—encompassing scholarship programs, fund-raising programs, and academic competitions—remains the most traditional form of corporate/school interaction and was the largest category of schoolhouse commercialism activities reported this past year. Media references to corporate sponsorships rose 9 percent in the 2003–2004 survey, with 1,317 references recorded, compared with 1,206 during 2002–2003. Since 1990, references have risen by 146 percent.

Exclusive Agreements

Exclusive agreements give corporate marketers exclusive rights to sell a product or service on school grounds and to exclude the products of competitors. References to such agreements more than doubled in 2003–2004, with 560 references as opposed to the previous year's 252 references. This represents a 122 percent increase. Since 1990, references to exclusive agreements have risen by 858 percent.
Much of the upsurge in exclusive agreements references stemmed from newspaper stories on the controversy over sales agreements for soda in schools. This issue was typically framed as a battle between profits for corporations and schools and concerns for students' health, particularly in the face of rising rates of childhood obesity (Lindt, 2003). In February 2004, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a statement declaring that soft drinks didn't belong in schools and calling for pediatricians to take up the fight to remove them (Thompson, 2004). Local and statewide bans on soft-drink sales in schools increased in popularity; as many as 15 states introduced legislation restricting school vending machine sales, and individual school districts began taking action as well (Thompson, 2004).
Some school districts clung to moneymaking contracts with soda sellers and sometimes joined campaigns to turn back bans on soda in schools (Welburn, 2003). For its part, the Coca-Cola Company responded with new “model guidelines” under which Coke agreed not to put its logo on textbooks and curriculum materials and to provide water, juices, and other drinks along with sodas in school vending machines (Coca-Cola, 2003). Meanwhile, dairy and juice vendors are capitalizing on the public hostility to soft drinks by marketing dairy treats in schools (Model schools switch, 2004; Ullmer, 2003).

Incentive Programs

Incentive programs provide a free commercial product or service as a reward for students who achieve an ostensibly academic goal, such as perfect attendance or increased reading. Media references to such programs were essentially flat, with 354 references in 2002–2003 and 351 in 2003–2004.
Pizza Hut, McDonald's, AMC Theatres, the Six Flags chain of amusement parks, and many other companies provide students with rewards for reading books, getting good grades, or maintaining good school attendance records. With the No Child Left Behind Act's emphasis on high-stakes testing, some schools turned to such commercial incentives as movie passes to boost student participation in tests (Hetzner, 2003).
Such incentive programs contribute to a view of education that is shifting from a collective, public good that engages youth in American civic life to an individual, private good—another consumer product. Viewed through the lens of this creeping consumerist ideology in schools, an apparently sincere suggestion that appeared in Forbes—that students should be awarded cash for scoring high on standardized tests—seems unsurprising (Miguel, 2003).

Appropriation of Space

Appropriation of space is the use of school property to promote individual corporations through such mechanisms as naming rights or general advertising. Naming rights, a novelty in school commercialism just a few years ago, has become increasingly widespread (Griswold, 2003; Logan, 2004; McCreary, 2003; Powell, 2003). In Brooklawn, New Jersey, in 2001, school district officials pioneered the sale of naming rights for school facilities by naming a gym “Shoprite of Brooklawn Center” in exchange for receiving $100,000 over 20 years from a local supermarket. Brooklawn School District now has begun auctioning off naming rights to schools on eBay (Mulvihill, 2004).
Advertising is pervasive in schools. One recurring theme in this category was school bus advertising. Schools now sell ad space on school buses to reach both the youthful riders and members of the public passing by (Eger, 2003; Race, 2004; White, 2003).
References in this category rose by 87 percent, to 611 references in the 2003–2004 period compared with 326 in the previous year. Since 1990, such references have risen 394 percent.
Sponsored educational materials are curriculum materials produced largely by an outside corporate entity for use in public schools. References in this category fell 7 percent, from 310 in 2002–2003 to 287 in the 2003–2004 period. References since 1990 have risen 1,038 percent, however.
When corporations provide curriculum materials directly related to their industries, students may receive distorted messages that serve the interests of the industry fashioning the curriculum. Consider the “Pick Protein” curriculum materials distributed by the Weekly Reader Corporation and cosponsored by U.S. pork producers, which encourage pork consumption as part of a healthy diet (“Dear educator,” 2004). One could question whether this material provides a full, balanced appraisal of the health benefits of a vegetarian diet, for example, or the conditions under which pigs are raised and their meat is processed.
A $100,000 program that the Motion Picture Association of America produced for schools, aimed at discouraging music and movie piracy, raised objections from civil libertarians for not addressing nuances in copyright law (Harris, 2003). The media have increasingly scrutinized the Chicago-based Field Trip Factory, which offers schools free field trips to stores. Stores involved pay Field Trip Factory for the exposure and for coordinating the visits (Mohl, 2004), and openly acknowledge that participation offers them an opportunity to woo young customers (Angrisani, 2004).

Electronic Marketing

Electronic marketing uses radio and TV, the Internet, or related media to advertise in schools. Overall, electronic marketing references showed a 24 percent increase, from 276 references in 2002–2003 to 341 references in the 2003–2004 study. A leading source of references in this category is Channel One Network, owned by Primedia Corporation. Channel One currently claims to reach about 8 million students, beaming into 370,000 classrooms in 12,000 schools (Kaufman, 2003). Channel One has drawn criticism from liberal organizations, such as the Green Party, and from social conservatives alike (Smith, 2003) for including many “soft” news features tied into products offered by Channel One advertisers and for commercials for sexually explicit movies and nonnutritious foods.
The cable television industry also gains access to schools in various ways, providing content that ranges from what appear to be little more than advertisements for prime-time offerings to more substantial material (Reynolds, 2003).


Privatization covers references to private management of public schools, public charter schools, and related topics. References in this category dipped 30 percent, from 1,570 in 2002–2003 to 1,100 in 2003–2004. However, events reported throughout 2003 and 2004 suggest that the privatized public education industry is maturing and evolving. Eduventures Inc., a Boston research firm, calculated that K–12 education business revenues grew 2.7 percent in 2003, to $50.1 million (Borja, 2004b). Private education firms have formed a trade association, and the industry is consolidating under a shrinking number of larger and larger players, with 34 mergers and acquisitions recently taking place in the sector (Borja, 2004a).
Mounting criticism of the for-profit school management industry led six leaders of for-profit schools to form their own trade group. The National Council of Education Providers lobbies for more public money and for regulations friendlier to its industry (Archer, 2004). The council is represented by the Allen Company, a lobbying firm operated by Jeanne Allen (Archer, 2004). Allen also founded and runs the Center for Education Reform, which advocates for the charter school reform movement. Charter schools have become the statutory vehicles by which the for-profit education sector has expanded, and the Center for Education Reform's work has helped the industry grow.
A U.S. General Accounting Office analysis of charter school performance issued in November 2003, Public Schools: Comparison of Achievement Results for Students Attending Privately Managed and Traditional Schools in Six Cities, found mixed results. Using standardized test scores and other data from a sample of 14 privately managed schools and 28 traditional schools, the report concluded that privately managed schools performed better than their public counterparts in some cities and worse in other cities (Borja, 2003b). A more recent American Federation of Teachers analysis suggests that charter schools perform less well academically than traditional public schools do (Nelson, Rosenberg, & Van Meter, 2004).
The growth of privatization is also reflected in the increase in the number of “virtual” schools—programs that combine distance education and homeschooling, usually organized under a state's charter school laws and tied in with corporate entities that provide curriculum materials and organizational infrastructure. Virtual charter schools enable students to study from home using curriculum materials obtained over the World Wide Web. Under some state charter school laws, curriculum providers, families, or both can qualify for state education aid by participating in such programs.
The firm most frequently cited in news stories about virtual charter schools is K12, a company founded by William Bennett, former education secretary under President George H. W. Bush. K12 is a provider of Web-based curriculum materials marketed for homeschoolers. It has aggressively pursued—and benefited from—passage of virtual school legislation. Although the company has directly enrolled about 2,000 homeschoolers, its principal business strategy entails forming partnerships with public schools and then being paid with state funds under charter or online education laws. K12 has found itself under fire in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Idaho for, among other things, lack of adequate supervision by certified teachers (Johnston, 2004; Trotter, 2003).


Fund-raising through corporate connections showed a 21 percent increase, from 970 references in the 2002–2003 study to 1,175 references in 2003–2004. Several references noted that wealthier communities were more active and successful in raising funds for their schools, perpetuating economic inequities across schools (Sherry, 2004).
Campbell's Labels for Education and General Mills Box Tops for Education are the two mostly widely known rewards programs. Schools readily encourage parents and neighbors to purchase the companies' products so that the appropriate labels or box tops can be collected and redeemed for rewards (Arend, 2004; Turcsik, 2003). Other marketers use customer loyalty programs, recording purchase amounts and awarding a percentage of the customer's purchases to designated schools (Aoki, 2004; Price, 2003; Turcsik, 2003).
Coverage drew attention to schools' increased dependence on outside fund-raising to cover basic operational costs, not just extracurricular expenses. A poll of parents for the National Parent Teacher Association found that 68 percent of schools that conducted fund-raising used proceeds to pay for “such basic needs as classroom equipment, textbooks, and school supplies,” while half of the parents polled said the money was being used to pay for “items normally covered by state funding” (Hurst, 2004).

Uncovering the Implications

A recent poll shows that 74 percent of professionals who market to young people expect to see in-school marketing increase (Geiger, 2004). Defenders of schoolhouse commercialism argue that it is no more than a way for schools to get needed additional resources and that schools should thank businesses for their largesse and pursue more corporate partnerships. The National Association of Partners in Education—a business group founded to promote corporate/school relationships—claims that research shows “improved achievement. . . [and] a reduction in ‘risk behaviors’ such as alcohol use and discipline problems” among students who participate in “partnership activities” that involve businesses in the school (Engeln, 2004).
Yet even if some youths have a positive personal experience with a business-sponsored program, corporate America's main concern is still the bottom line. The situation in Oregon brings into sharp relief the way business interests undermine schools even as corporations seek credit for contributions. Many businesses in Oregon have recently held drives to raise money for schools. These campaigns were structured to promote their own company sales. For instance, a car dealer gave $25 for every car sold, with a goal of $100,000; restaurants and hair salons donated percentages of their sales as well. At the same time, businesses were advocating policies that drained schools of funds. At a time when state law blocked school districts from raising local taxes, business interests sought to roll back a statewide tax increase to aid schools (Borja, 2003a).
Uncovering the influence of corporations in public schools forces us to grapple with the question of what our schools are ultimately for. Americans have historically conceived of public education as a means to prepare the next generation to participate fully in a free and democratic society. Such participation requires responsible questioning of the status quo and established power structures. The more corporate special interests we allow to influence what schools teach—and, by extension, what they cannot teach—and the more we view students as active consumers and passive citizens, the farther schools move from that ideal.

Angrisani, C. (2004, Feb. 9). H-E-Buddy children's program grows up. Supermarket News, p. 53.

Aoki, N. (2004, May 13). Fashion statement; entrepreneur focuses on raising profits, awareness. The Boston Globe, p. C1.

Archer, J. (2004, Feb. 4). Private charter managers team up. Education Week.

Arend, J. (2004, May 6). School cashes in on shoppers' win; box tops program generating extra income for campuses. The Dallas Morning News, p. 1Y.

Berdik, C. (2004, May 30). Your all-mall mater. The Boston Globe, p. D2.

Borja, R. (2003a, Nov. 19). Cash-strapped Oregon schools get help from businesses. Education Week.

Borja, R. (2003b, Nov. 12). Report examines privatized schools' scores. Education Week.

Borja, R. (2004a, April 14). More education companies playing “let's make a deal.” Education Week.

Borja, R. (2004b, April 7). Education industry eyes opportunities in “No Child” law. Education Week.

Coca-Cola. (2003). Your power to choose: Model guidelines for school beverage partnerships. Available: www.asu.edu/educ/epsl/CERU/Community%20Corner/CERU-0311-180-RCC.pdf

Dear educator . . . (2004, Jan. 1). Current Health 2, a Weekly Reader publication, 5(30).

Eger, A. (2003, Oct. 12). Commercials in buses could “ad” up quickly. Tulsa World, p. A1.

Engeln, J. T. (2004, March 30). Capitol Hill hearing testimony. Federal Document Clearing House.

Geiger, B. (2004, April 17). Minneapolis marketing briefs. Finance & Commerce (Minneapolis, MN). Distributed by Dolan Media Newswires.

Griswold, L. (2003, Aug. 17). Auto mall wins vote of support. Fresno Bee, p. B1.

Harris, R. (2003, Oct. 31). Hollywood takes its fight with piracy into schools. Associated Press. Reprinted in the Deseret News (Salt Lake City, UT), p. W8.

Hetzner, A. (2003, Nov. 9). Schools turn to test-taking incentives. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, p. A1.

Hurst, M. D. (2004, Jan. 21). Parent poll: Schools using fund raising for basics. Education Week, 23(19), p. 3.

Johnston, R. C. (2004, Jan. 21). Wisconsin teachers sue to close online school. Education Week.

Kaufman, D. (2003, Nov. 24). Channel One outlasts its critics; in-school commercials remain a sore point for opposition. Television Week, p. 18.

Lindt, S. (2003, Aug. 5). Too many kids getting too big for their health. Intelligencer Journal (Lancaster, PA), p. A1.

Logan, T. (2004, Jan. 19). Group of parents has plan for Clayton's sports fields. St. Louis Post-Dispatch, West Post, p. 1.

McCreary, J. (2003, Dec. 19). Four cities to bid for Super Six event. Associated Press. Reprinted in the Charleston (WV) Daily Mail, p. 1B.

Miami-Dade County schools consider selling ads to be placed inside buses. (2003, Aug. 19). The Miami Herald.

Miguel, E. (2003, Nov. 24). Cash talks. Forbes, p. 48.

Model schools switch from soda to juice without losing funding fizz. (2004, April 24). Press release for Switch Beverage Co. Distributed by Business Wire.

Mohl, B. (2004, April 4). Commercial break: A company profits from taking kids on field trips to retail outlets, but what are they learning? The Boston Globe, Business, p. 1.

Molnar, A. (2003, July). School commercialism, student health, and the pressure to do more with less. Tempe, AZ: Commercialism in Education Research Unit, Education Policy Studies Laboratory, Arizona State University.

Mulvihill, G. (2004, April 19). Name this school—sponsors helping district's cash flow. Associated Press. Reprinted in The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, TN), p. A4.

Nelson, F. N., Rosenberg, B., & Van Meter, N. (2004). Charter school achievement on the 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress. Washington, DC: American Federation of Teachers.

Nussbaum, D. (2004, May 2). Adding a little extra to the education pot. The New York Times, Section 14NJ, p. 6.

Powell, B. (2003, Aug. 31). Growing importance of image drives up automakers' philanthropy. Associated Press. Reprinted in The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, TN), p. G1.

Price, L. (2003, July 15). McKinney, Texas, school district approves credit-card fundraising program. The Dallas Morning News.

Race, T. (2004, April 27). Ads on school buses OK'd. The Patriot Ledger (Quincy, MA), p. 10.

Reynolds, M. (2003, Nov. 17). “Galactica” soars in Spanish. Multichannel News, p. 32.

Rubin, B. M. (2004, Feb. 23). Reading, writing, retailing? Schools' field trips increasingly flock to stores. Chicago Tribune.

Sherry, A. (2004, May 23). Schools unequal in search for funds. The Denver Post, p. A1.

Shortman, M. (2004, Jan. 12). Artful communication. PR Week, p. 21.

Smith, S. A. (2003, Nov. 15). Program gets blurry reception. The News-Leader (Springfield, MO).

Thompson, S. H. (2004, March 16). Bubble trouble. Tampa Tribune (FL), p. 1.

Trotter, A. (2003, Oct. 1). “Virtual school” battle sparks Minnesota lawsuit. Education Week.

Turcsik, R. (2003, Oct. 1). Sweet charity. Progressive Grocer.

Ullmer, K. (2003, Dec. 25). Centerville, dairy group get together. Dayton Daily News, Neighbors, pp. Z2–1.

U.S. Government Accountability Office. (2004, April 23). School meal programs: Competitive foods are available in many schools (GAO-04-673). Washington, DC: Author.

Welburn, B. (2003, Nov. 5). Vending ban is no cure for childhood obesity. Letter to the Editor, Education Week.

White, J. (2003, Oct. 27). School bus ads an “excellent idea.” The Patriot Ledger (Quincy, MA), p. 1.

Alex Molnar has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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